A Surprise in Oxford

A surprise discovery while visiting Oxford, Surprised by Oxford, Carolyn Weber, gifts, talents, abilities, God, Michelle Ule, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis

As I rode the train from Reading to Oxford, I opened the Kindle app on my phone and began to reread Carolyn Weber’s lovely Surprised by Oxford.

It’s the memoir of her first year as an Oxford graduate student in English Literature 20 years ago, when Weber thought she was meeting the great writers of the canon (which did happen), but in which she also met the great lover of her soul: Jesus.

Beautifully written in her lyrical style, full of poetry and populated with memorable characters, Surprised by Oxford received awards and was my favorite book of 2011.

When I realized the opportunity to spend a day wandering the ancient university town myself, I thought I’d bone up a bit on the story and look for some of the memorable places she described in her memoir.

No surprise to me, many were the same only 20 years later. And why not? The town has been housing university students for over 1000 years!

A remembered yearning

A surprise discovery while visiting Oxford, Surprised by Oxford, Carolyn Weber, gifts, talents, abilities, God, Michelle Ule, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis

What did surprise me, was my reaction to the ancient seat of learning. I only have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature  from the University of California, Los Angeles. It’s a good degree and I worked hard to earn it.

But I’ve always craved academic distinction. A Master’s degree would have helped, a PhD, even more so (though in History, not English Literature!).

When I took our children to visit colleges, the longing to spend a concentrated period of time just learning, was palpable.

When my husband attended the Naval Post Graduate School (thank you, American taxpayers), I could scarcely visit the campus I so yearned to be a student myself.

So, I went to Oxford to acknowledge my admiration for learning and with some personal trepidation. I anticipated being overwhelmed by envy when young women rode by on bicycles, basket full of books, black gown and long hair flying behind, off to a tutorial with a professor.

According to Weber, on the graduate level those weekly classes would have been at most three students and a professor discussing their subject matter over tea or sherry (depending on the time of day).

How I would have loved that!

A surprise discovery while visiting Oxford, Surprised by Oxford, Carolyn Weber, gifts, talents, abilities, God, Michelle Ule, Surprised by Joy, C.S. LewisHow I love it now when I get into lengthy discussions on my subject matter. (Current subject: Oswald Chambers and World War I; but I’ve others in my arsenal).

Long ago, I came to understand that I probably would never get a graduate degree. Time and circumstances, money and logic tripped me up. Still, I read.

On and on and on at the library across subjects, genres and the entire Library of Congress numerical shelving system.

At Oxford

Taking a deep breath and adjusting my bag, I climbed off the train and stepped onto the cobbled byways and walks of Oxford. Bicycles rattled by. Tour buses overshadowed me (though not as many as in summer). Blackwell’s Bookstore beckoned (spent too much money there) and tour guides hawked “Harry Potter tours” to “daytrippers” like me.

I was tempted to tour, but instead, strode toward the spiraling towers to experience the place with my own ideas.

It was early October, the first week of “term.” I wasn’t the only novice in town.

I saw a lot of young women on bicycles.

Many scholars passed by clutching books and wearing the black robes Americans only see on graduation days (or when watching an H. Potter film and Hogwarts is in term).

What a wonderful day walking along those ancient walls and staring at those buildings dedicated to knowledge.

A surprise discovery while visiting Oxford, Surprised by Oxford, Carolyn Weber, gifts, talents, abilities, God, Michelle Ule, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis

Radcliffe Camera in Oxford

What a satisfying feeling to realize, for once, I did not feel envy.

I was surprised by joy, instead.*

As I marveled at that surprising reaction to Oxford, I realized I may finally have turned a personal corner.

This year all four books I’ve written have been published.

All that research, all that reading I’ve done over the years, has received the acknowledgment of professional value: publication.

I don’t have to have a master’s degree. I don’t have to go back to college.

Sort of.

Because, of course, my mind and abilities were validated the day I was born. I just didn’t recognize that fact.

God creates each of us for His purposes, to give Him glory, and to provide the world He places us in with a blessing.

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Your gifts, talents and abilities, like mine, are not tossed out into a void. It’s not a surprise to God where you are today with your skills and abilities. Your talents, and how God put them in you, are valuable–whether a book comes of it or not.

Carolyn Weber took her admirable talents and abilities to Oxford to pursue knowledge for the sake of beauty and the lyricism of words. God was not surprised, even if she was, by the Truth she found there as well.

You don’t have to visit Oxford, or watch a Harry Potter movie, or even earn a degree to be of great value to the Creator of the Universe.

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The good news is, He loves you and the person he created you to be, just as much as he loves me.

I just hope you don’t have to travel as far and for as long, as I did to realize that truth.

Do you love to acquire knowledge, to read, and to learn? If so, why? Click to Tweetem>


*Not to be confused by C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy which also took place here!  🙂





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  1. I do love to learn. I think that is one reason I so enjoyed homeschooling. It was an opportunity to learn things I missed the first time around, and it was in a more relaxed setting where I could concentrate more on the subject than on the social issues in the school setting. The reason I enjoy learning is because God put a natural curiosity within me that has never been squelched. Learning new things is like feeding my brain with mind food. It is nourishing as long as it is worthwhile information that has the possibility to allow me to glorify God or help other people in some manner.

  2. Michelle Ule

     /  November 1, 2013

    Amen, Janice. Maybe that’s why God gives us children–so we can relive and relearn new things every day!

    I know when I get on a roll, I read everything on a subject. When I find a writer I like, I read everything they’ve written. I’m so thankful for all the opportunities to find information these days on the Internet. But you’d think I’d have figured out some of this without having to go all the way to Oxford, England! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’ll be buying, Surprised by Oxford for my next read.
    I felt like I was walking alongside of you while reading this blog. Thank you for the return trip to England and also for the reminder that joy comes in opening my heart to what God gives me and to let go of what I think I have missed out on doing. Loved this!

  4. Michelle Ule

     /  November 1, 2013

    It’s a wonderful book, I hope you enjoy it. Next week I’ll be posting blogs with pictures about what I saw in Oxford as well as a fun visit to the Bodeliean Library

  5. Was the title “Surprised by Oxford” a play on Lewis’ title?

    I’m an inveterate reader, but not for specific learning (except as research for writing). Instead I read to try to understand why people do what they do, and how they keep faith in hard situations.

    Which may be learning after all.

  6. I’d say the answer to all your comments/questions isyes.

  7. Oh lovely. I have part of a novel set there (1770s). You’ve convinced me to buy Surprised by Oxford. Have you ever read To Say Nothing of the Dog: or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis? Narrated by Steven Crossley is even better. One of my all time favorite books, and it is partly set in Oxford… in the future and the past. Hilarious story, especially how Crossley reads it. “That sweet city with its dreaming spires….”

  8. Michelle Ule

     /  November 2, 2013

    Thanks, Lori, I’ll put them on my list. Oxford is a wonderful, magical, place. Next post is of photos from my walk, which probably hasn’t changed much in 280 years! 🙂

  9. My character attended Queens College. 🙂

  10. All 4 published! Wow, that’s maybe better than going on a tour of, say, Oxford.

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